We don’t make rules in our family, so how do my children know what is right and what is wrong, if they aren’t guided by clearly stated limits? Do I believe my own quiet example of appropriate behaviour is all that is needed in order to influence my children? Perhaps I stand back, hands-off, and let my children behave as they choose?
I decide to ponder a few ideas with my children, in an attempt to find the answers to these questions.
“Should I correct you if I feel your behaviour is wrong?” I ask.
“Oh yes,” replies my second daughter Imogen. “Children need guidance from their parents. You can’t just let us do whatever we want. We’d grow up to be very self-centred. And we wouldn’t know what constitutes appropriate behaviour when it comes to relating to people.”
“Should we have rules so you all know what is acceptable and what is not, or is there another way?”
“Rules aren’t the answer. They can be broken, and parents and children end up fighting over them, in a power struggle. I like how you do things better.”
I ask Imogen to explain. “You take us quietly aside and chat about things as equals. I know we’re not equals*. You’re the parent and we’re your children, but it feels like we’re talking on the same level. You don’t lord it over us, talking down to us. You don’t make us feel small.”
When I observe one of my children having a hard time acting appropriately or upset over something, I do try to spend some quiet time with her/him. I try not to make accusations but rather endeavour to show empathy:
“You’re having a hard time getting on with your older sister?”
“You’re finding it difficult being patient with the younger ones?”
“Having trouble staying cheerful?”
This usually gives my children an opening to share how they’re feeling. They can talk about the issues they’re having difficulties with. We ponder the situation together and sometimes chatting is enough. If it’s not we usually come up with some suggestions together, for dealing with the problem. Often I share my own experiences too. I’m certainly not perfect so I can talk about my own struggles.
“What if you want to do something I’m not happy about?” I ask Imogen.
“Like what?” she asks.
“Well, what if you want to go out with friends and stay out to the early hours of the morning and I’m worried about you doing this?”
Imogen smiles. I smile too. This sounds like a very improbable scenario. “Just pretend,” I say, before adding, “Should I intervene or just let you do what you like?”
“You should tell me how you feel and share your reasons for not wanting me to do that and I’d listen,” Imogen says.
“But why should you listen?”
“Because I respect your opinion. I trust you because you always trust and respect me.”
Twelve year old Sophie has been listening intently to this conversation. Now she says, “You always listen to me. You always want to hear my side of the story so I would listen to you too.”
Now of course, if I saw my children fighting and someone was in danger of being hurt, I wouldn’t wait for a quiet moment in order to sort things out. That would be silly. I’d separate my children immediately and deal with the problem there and then, listening to both parties.
And if a child was about to do something dangerous or destructive, again it wouldn’t make sense to say, “When you’re finished, would you mind meeting me for a little chat?”
There are other situations where one-on-one conferences are not the answer. Sometimes a quick word, is all that is needed to remind my kids to act properly: a few words of empathy, a reminder, even eye-to-eye contact:
“Tired? Finding it hard to cope?”
“Can you take your shoes off please? The mud will stain the carpet.”
Is guiding my children in this manner compatible with unschooling philosophy? I don’t really know. Does it even matter if we’re all happy and my children are growing into well adjusted people? It’s not as if I’m attempting to get a degree in advanced unschooling. I’m bringing up children… my children.
I do however find other people’s opinions interesting, so I’ll share something I read recently. On Sandra Dodd‘s website, I found a list of things to do if you want to ‘screw up unschooling’. Here’s a few points:
- Don’t collaborate.
- “Unparent”—give kids “free reign” without talking to them re: appropriateness of their actions (affecting others and others’ property).
- Don’t help your kid understand the ways of the world and boundaries and what’s right and what’s wrong.
- When they have a disagreement, let them work things out themselves with no input from you.
- Do not prepare them ahead of time for anything new they may encounter. Let them deal with it on their own.
- Have the idea that unschooling is just allowing your kids to walk all over others because they feel like it and well you don’t want to run their lives!
- Set lots of rules, boundaries, and limitations.
There’s lots to ponder here.
As I am writing this my young adult son Callum arrives home. Perhaps he has something extra to add.
“I’m writing about rules,” I say.
“Rules don’t work. Children need boundaries.”
“But how can you have boundaries without rules?”
“I don’t mean boundaries enforced by external rules. I mean self-imposed boundaries,” explains Callum. “The incentive not to step over the line and do what is wrong must come from within a child.”
“And what makes a child want to stay within those limits?”
Then Callum mentioned trust and respect and love and example… all very powerful motivators for influencing a child to do what is right.
Can a parent bring up well adjusted children who know right from wrong without rules? I believe they can.
* I do believe we are equal in dignity and worth, but we are unequal in experience.